Published on December 7th, 2023 | by Matt Fischer
Throwback Thursday Review: Man Of Steel #1 (1986) @DC
Summary: With this first issue, John Byrne laid the groundwork for the next 37 years of Superman. Everything must have felt so different in 1986 when this came out.
Modern Superman is born!
Background – The 1980’s was a very tumultuous time in DC comics. Crisis On Infinite Earths had just happened. Trillions of people died, and heroes and reality had been rewritten and reborn. Those heroes included the Trinity. Wonder Woman had a career defining book written by George Perez. Batman had a few minor changes but for the most part stayed the same. Superman, however, was taken all the way back to square one. It fell to beloved X-men and Fantastic Four stalwart John Byrne to bring the Man of Steel into the 1980’s. In doing so, he created the Superman mythos that have been typically accepted as the norm for the past 32 of the past 37 years (the New 52 is a whole other ballgame which I’ll eventually get to).
These 80 or so reviews (!) will cover the entire two-year span John Byrne held control over Superman. Some of these books that will be reviewed are not written or drawn by Byrne, but he controlled the curation of these titles until he could reasonably take them over or have a hand in plotting them. When it came to Superman from 1986 – 1988, John Byrne was the voice of God.
But how good was his opening issue of this giant Superman epic? Let’s find out.
Writing – The book is split into chapters and so we begin with the Prologue, which is titled “From Out Of The Green Dawn.” We open our Superman origin story where all good Superman origin stories open up, on the planet Krypton, just before the planet explodes. Now, before this issue, Krypton was more the 1930’s world fair idea of what a futuristic alien society would be. People had flying cars and all that fun weird silver age stuff. But no more. We are introduced to what would be the de-facto Krypton moving forward. It is a cold and sterile place. While it isn’t made of crystals like the 1970’s Superman, it definitely wasn’t a cozy inviting place either. Jor-El wanders around his home surrounded by Kelex robots. He instructs the birthing Matrix to be brought down to his laboratory.
Birthing matrix? What the heck is that?
Well, a birthing matrix is baby Superman. That’s right, the El’s don’t place a baby into a rocket ship. They place what WILL be a baby into a rocket ship. The best way to describe it is they placed Kal’s incubator inside. The reason Byrne did this isn’t really made clear until the final issue of the Man of Steel mini-series, but when it comes up, I promise it will make sense.
Lara enters and is astounded (and slightly disgusted) that her husband has made a rocket ship and is even more shocked when she finds out his plans to send their baby (yes, I know what I said earlier, that it’s not a baby yet, but I’m also not typing birthing matrix 27 times) to a distant planet called Earth.
Lara is shocked when shown a man, a farmer (who is never explicitly stated to be Jonathan Kent) with no shirt on standing in the field. Apparently, Kryptonian’s don’t have physical relations, at least not in the way that we humans do (hence the birthing matrix). Jor-El calms her by explaining that our sun will give him incredible powers and Lara asks if he will then be able to rule the people of Earth like some kind of benevolent god and turn them to more Krypton’s cultured habits. Jor-El seems uneasy with this thought but is out of time. The matrix is put in the ship and it rockets away as we see the now iconic (and repeated endlessly) shot of the El’s embracing as the planet explodes.
hapter 1: “ The Secret”
18 or so years later, Clark Kent has become the star of the football team. While his teammates are jealous, Clark barrels through the competition and wins yet another game. Seeing that his son is maybe getting a bit to big for his bridges. Pa Kent decides it’s time to show Clark something important. He drives him to a field and has Clark lift a heavy hidden door in the ground. In the hole that it covers lies his ship. Clark is shocked that he is adopted and Jonathan then recounts the now classic story of the Kent’s drive home that fateful night. They see the ship land and find that it contains a baby.
While they at first think it may have come from Russia (remember, this book was written while the Cold War was still active), Pa then worries that it could be a Martian baby. Martha doesn’t care though, because she is more than willing to raise the baby as their own. Kansas gets hit by a huge snowfall that lasts 5 months and by the time it melts, Martha had finally “given birth” to their surprise baby. Nobody was ever the wiser.
We then see a series of panels that show Clark and his family discovering that he may not be a normal boy after all. Pa discovers Clark’s invulnerability when Clark accidently gets trampled by a bull. Martha discovers his strength and X-ray vision when Clark as a young boy lifts the family tractor to get a ball and Clark helps her find her keys in the kitchen while he’s in the living room. Finally, Clark finds out he can fly when his family dog jumps on him and pushes him into a ravine… only to float and then fly upwards!
Clark then asks why any of this matters. Jonathan then reminds him that he is an American citizen and he’s got responsibilities (think the shortened version of “With great power…”) Clark then feels weak for someone around the ship (!) and they drive off while a shadowy trench coat looks on hidden from view. Clark tells his parents that he has decided to leave Smallville after he graduates and see if he can somehow use his powers to help people… he’s just got someone to see first!
Chapter Two: “Exposure”
We then move 7 years forward in time as the Kent’s settle down to read the scrapbook of Clark’s achievements that she’s created. Just as Pa sees a newspaper article that states “Mysterious Superman Saves Space Plane”, he hears a sound coming from upstairs. Upon examining it, he finds Clark sitting in the dark in his room.
Clark tells Jonathan the story of the space plane rescue. It follows pretty much every beat that we would also see in the opening story to Superman: The Animated Series as well as a variation of in Superman Returns. Two planes collide with each other (one of them of course containing Lois Lane.) Clark knows he has to act, so he saves the plane wearing his street clothes. After he saves the planes, the media and civilian’s all gather around Clark, asking him questions and pretty much overwhelms him to the point that he has no choice to fly away.
Clark is lost emotionally. He knows what he has to do… but doesn’t know how to face all these people. He doesn’t think he can be their hero. Jonathan then gets an idea.
Epilogue: “The Super-Hero”
What could be called our end credits scene shows us that Martha Kent has designed and made Clarks costume. Clark shows his mother the S crest that he and Jonathan came up with (in this version, the S doesn’t stand for anything more than Superman. No symbols of Kryptonese hope…yet).
Clark works out his new disguise of glasses and slouching just a bit and he is ready to face the new world. He flies away from the farm, reborn as Superman!
Artwork – In my opinion, drawing Superman is the last great art that John Byrne did. Everybody talks about his Fantastic Four and X-men art, but for me, this Superman is perfect. His muscles are well defined, and his face actually looks like that of a normal human being. In fact, everyone does. While there are a few … iffy drawings (one such being baby Clark. He looks like a baby Uncle Fester to me), Byrne shows such great CONTRAST in the cold almost bleached out Krypton to the amazing and vibrant scenes on Earth. It’s where things really come to life. As with the birthing matrix, this serves as a special plot point, but we will get to that in the review for issue 6.
Final Thoughts – With this first issue, John Byrne laid the groundwork for the next 37 years of Superman. Except for a few “meh” panels, this book is fantastic. Everything must have felt so different in 1986 when this came out. Next stop: Metropolis!
Final score: 4 out of 5 stars
Writer: John Byrne
Penciler: John Byrne
Inker: Tom Ziuko
Colorist: John Costanza
Letterer: Andy Helfer
Release Date: 07/10/1986